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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Leo Baxendale (1930-2017)

Leo Baxendale, one of only a handful of artists in Britain to advance humour comic strips in the past seventy years, died on Sunday, 23 April 2017, aged 86. Baxendale, who once described his favourite recreation as “seeping into the woodwork and rotting it,” wrote and drew some of the most enduring comic creations of all time and helped The Beano enter a golden age in the 1950s when he worked alongside the likes of Davey Law, Ken Reid and Paddy Brennan. Although he worked in the mainstream comic industry for only 22 years, his influence endures to this day.

Of his work Baxendale said: "Any limitations on my children’s comics have been self-imposed. The Beano readership was in the age range 6-13 (plus a sizeable subterranean adult following) and by the age of six a child has a sufficiently large body of knowledge in the mind to cope with strong, complex comedy. That was a sufficient base on which to structure a vast, expanding universe of comedy...That was the market I was working for. Nevertheless I drew what made me laugh out loud (ruthlessly discarding anything that didn’t) on the assumption that it would likewise make the reader laugh. I treat children as adults, and speak to them (through my work) straightforwardly as such." 

Born Joseph Leo Baxendale in Whittle-le-Woods, Lancashire, on 27 October 1930, Leo was the son of Joseph Baxendale and his wife Gertrude (nee Dickinson). His parents were both weavers, who found themselves unemployed after the local mill closed down; the family moved to Preston where Joseph held a number of jobs, including work as a chauffeur, gardener and boiler supervisor at a local power station.

Leo's talents for drawing developed as a young boy and even at the age of five he was encouraged by his parents, who allowed him to decorate the wall alongside the staircase from top to bottom. After leaving Preston Catholic College, a Jesuit grammar school, he found work designing paint labels for the Leyland Paint and Vamish Company. Between 1949 and 1950 he served with the catering corps. of the R.A.F., after which he worked as a staff artist for the Lancashire Evening Post, drawing sports cartoons, editorial illustrations, adverts and his own series of self-penned articles.

Aged 22, and inspired by David Law’s "Dennis the Menace", he submitted work to D.C. Thomson's The Beano, a comic he had read as a child, and was immediately accepted by editor George Moonie, who liked his robust style. His earliest work included 'Oscar Krank, The Mad Inventor' (which disappeared entirely), 'Charlie Choo', a Chinese detective who surfaced in the Beano Book in 1954, and 'Jamie the Gamie', which made its way into a Thomson newspaper some while later.

However, it was not long before Baxendale began creating his own characters, "Little Plum your Redskin Chum", who, along with his horse Treaclefoot and Chiefy, leader of the Smellyfoot tribe, waged a constant war with rivals the Puttyfoot tribe and the bears that inhabited the same area.

Five months later, in September 1953, Baxendale created "Minnie the Minx", a female counterpart to the popular Dennis, whom the artist later described as "a girl of boundless ambition. She was convinced that certain characters were trying to hold her back – and she was probably quite right. She didn't have any magic powers or superhuman strengths but she was an Amazonian warrior – the power was in her mind."

A month later his third Beano set was accepted by Moonie. Inspired by Giles's rampaging family of tiny children, the single panel "When the Bell Rings" would later become a full-page strip under the title "The Bash Street Kids". This was Baxendale's first strip to introduce a group of characters and develop the group dynamic. It appeared in February 1954, seven months before the release of The Belles of St Trinian's, based on Ronald Searle's cartoons, although Baxendale's were urban, working class kids.

The atmosphere of total mayhem that Baxendale was developing was certainly at odds with the traditional humour strip, particularly those of the Amalgamated Press, Thomson's main rivals. A contemporary of Baxendale's, Ken Reid, was similarly minded, and The Beano was unrivaled for humour at that time. Sales of over one and a half million copies a week and a far wider readership meant that a generation of the country's young  grew up on Baxendale's strips in the 1950s.

In November 1953, he moved to Scotland, finding a home in Broughty Ferry, a suburb of Dundee where D. C. Thomson had their editorial offices. He was able to earn £10 a week from the three Beano strips, more than an average working wage, and often added more to his workload, filling in on "Dennis the Menace" and "Lord Snooty"; in 1956 he began drawing "The Banana Bunch" for the newly launched Beezer and in 1959 created "The Three Bears" for Beano.

The workload proved too much. Baxendale, now married and raising five young children and suffering from exhaustion and depression, eventually contracted pneumonia in 1960. He struggled to draw his compliment of pages throughout 1961 and into 1962. He then impulsively quit working for The Beano in 1962 after an argument with editor Harold Crammond, who had asked him to redraw what Baxendale thought was a perfectly good page.

Baxendale continued to work for The Beezer, edited by Ian Chisholm and then Bill Swinton, adding "The Gobblers" to his regular work on "The Banana Bunch". The mechanical production was beginning to gall, and he visited Crammond with an offer to return to The Beano. Baxendale's strips had been farmed out to various other artists and Crammond turned down his offer flat.

Seeking work elsewhere, Baxendale contacted Odhams and Fleetway, Thomsons biggest rivals in children's comics, and immediately received offers from both. Odhams invited him to create a new title, which he began working on in late 1963. Although it did not quite match his original hopes, Wham! was a riot of invention, with Baxendale creating a whole army of new strips, from "General Nit and his Barmy Army", "Georgie's Germs" and "The Tiddlers" to "Biff" and the full-colour double-page "Eagle-Eye, Junior Spy". Most of the strips were  after the first issue, and

Baxendale even succeeded in tempting Ken Reid from Thomsons but had to keep up a prodigious output of strips, which, once again, began to cause health problems. To help him relax he cut back on his output, passing on strips to other artists to continue and began publishing a weekly newsletter, The Strategic Commentary, written by Terence Heelas. Baxendale, who had previously been organizer of Dundee CND in 1962, later wrote "The Strategic Commentary sought to demonstrate, on grounds of cold military logic, that America could not win the war in Vietnam." The newsletter ran for two-and-a-half years, folding when Baxendale moved his family back to England in June 1967, first to a rambling house in Painswick in the Cotswalds and then to a more compact bungalow in Eastcombe.

Such was the initial success of Wham! that a companion paper, Smash!, was added, with Baxendale creating more new characters, including "Bad Penny", "The Nerves" and "Grimly Feendish". However, when Wham!'s sales began to slide, Baxendale threw himself into trying to rescue the title, but became so stretched that he began reworking old Thomson sets (Minnie becomes Bad Penny, Little Plum becomes General Nit), much to the ire of the latter company. Baxendale's two-year contract was coming to an end and Odhams offered him another contract, but only for a year. Baxendale began circulating the idea of a monthly 'super-comic' to publishers and his relationship with Odhams naturally soured.

Needing an income, he began drawing for Fleetway creating "The Pirates", "The Cave Kids", "Mervyn's Monsters" nad "Big Chief Pow Wow" for Buster, "The Nits of the Round Table" for Tiger, "Bluebottle and Basher" for Valiant and "The Lion Lot" for Lion over the next few years. Unwilling to give up his lucrative work for the better-paying Odhams, he also wrote scripts, sent in by a friend in Scotland, and drawing artwork via Mike Brown, who inked many pages, and via Hampstead Studio, which was set up by Baxendale and Irene Rooum.

When Odhams was absorbed by l.P.C. Magazines in 1969, Baxendale continued to work for Smash!, drawing "Bad Penny" and "The Swots and the Blots" before creating "Sam's Spook". That same year, Fleetway launched Whizzer and Chips under editor Bob Paynter and Baxendale supplied countless sets during the next six years: "Champ" (Whizzer & Chips), "Clever Dick", "Nellyphant" and "Snooper" (Buster), "The Krazy Cats" (Knockout), "Match of the Week" and "Sweeny Toddler" (both Shiver & Shake) as well as continuing "The Swots and the Blots" in Valiant.

His swan song for IPC was "The Bad Time Bed Time Book", a series of 8-page booklets that were printed as a pull-out in Monster Fun, usually a parody of a popular book, TV show or fairy tale given a creepy twist such as "Punch and Chewday" and "Star Truck".

Baxendale left lPC in 1975, and over the next few years concentrated on writing and drawing three volumes featuring Willy the Kid for Duckworth, who also published his autobiography, A Very Funny Business, in 1978. Baxendale drew for Eppo in Holland whilst preparing a case against Thomsons for recognition as creator of his many Beano characters which had continued under various different artists. The case finally came to a mutually agreeable but undisclosed settlement in 1987 after seven years. Baxendale celebrated the result with the release of Thrrp! from Knockabout, his first work in the UK for 12 year. His court case against Thomsons became the subject of The Encroachment Part One, which Baxendale published in 1988 under the imprint Reaper Books, followed a year later by On Comedy: The Beano and Ideology.

In 1990 he returned to the comic strip with "I Love You Baby Basil", a weekly strip for the Guardian newspaper, which he continued to draw until March 1992.

As Reaper Books, Baxendale continued to publish further titles: two collections of Baby Basil, I LOVE You Baby Basil (1991) and Down the Plughole (1995), an autobiography, Pictures in the Mind 2000), and further treaties on comics, The Beano Room and Other Places (2005) and Hobgoblin Wars (2009).

In 2003 Baxendale received the Cartoon Art Trust Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was indicted into the British Comics Awards Hall of Fame in 2013.

Baxendale married Peggy (Margaret Mary Green) in 1955. She survives him, as do their five children Martin, Carol, Stephen, Heather and Mark; ten grandchildren Rosie, Jacob, Zuza, Jo, Misho, Eloise, Joel, Jake, Owen, Tamsin; and three great grandchildren Rupert, Barney and Zoe.

Martin Baxendale's tribute to his father.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece, Steve. (There's a typo or two, which I'm sure you'll sort out in your own good time.) I was never quite convinced by Leo's later rationalisations behind his approach to comedy. I think it's more likely that he just drew on an instinctive level what he found funny, and the seemingly over-thought out analysis of it came much later. What strikes me is just how many contemporary cartoonists now claim to have been influenced by Bax, because you certainly wouldn't know it from looking at their art. I sometimes wonder if his 'influence' in comics perhaps resulted more from Thomson's wanting their replacement artists to maintain visual consistency (as readers don't like change), rather than because Leo's style was perceived as being 'better' than anybody else's. (We should remember that DCT still considered Dudley Watkins to be their top artist at this time.) After all, there are a handful of artists who successfully emulated Bax's 'look', but few could match his manic energy and background sight gags, Tom Paterson perhaps being the most successful. The point being that, sure, the strips continued to look like Bax's style, but they were seldom (if ever) quite as funny again. However, he's still one of the greats.